Drought Management Plan

Waiting to pick up our coffee orders, a neighbor and a veteran of 30 seasons as a little league coach groused that his perennial champs had no practices in April due to the heavy rains, making the fields soggy and unsafe.  Knowing my expertise as an environmental lawyer, he asked me if it was due to climate change, or is that “fake” science as POTUS claims, or is it real and the denial is one of his many lies.  I assured him that climate change is real and was recently supported in the March 4, 2019 United Nations 6th Global Environmental Outlook Report.  I told him to expect more rain in May and extreme weather conditions like the severe drought we experienced in 2016, and suggested the baseball season be scheduled for warmer months.

If I had more time, I would have educated him on the 2019 revised Drought Management Plan (“DMP”) prepared by the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission.  Massachusetts is relatively water-rich with annual precipitation averaging 48 inches a year, ranging from 31 to 61 inches.  There were 6.9 inches of rainfall on the baseball fields in April 2019 (the norm is 3.9).  Annual precipitation in Massachusetts is expected to rise as a result of climate change and extreme precipitation events are on the rise.  However, large storms do not mean significant groundwater recharge or steady stream flows.  They mostly result in localized flooding and rapid stormwater flows.

Massachusetts has suffered major droughts over the years, including 2016-2017, which was characterized by a rapid decline in conditions from month to month, known as a “flash drought.”  The nine year drought from 1961-1969 is the most severe on record, and communities responded with water-use restrictions and emergency supplies.  I remember when Great Pond in South Weymouth turned into a mud flat, killing my favorite fishing spot.

Great Pond in Jan. 2017. Photo by Ed Baker

The 2001 DMP was developed in response to a period of low precipitation from April 1999 to March 2000.  It was revised and updated over time in consultation with the Drought Management Task Force (“DMTF”) and issued as a formal plan in 2013.  During the 2016-17 drought, the 2013 DMP was used and lessons learned.  EEA and MEMA are responsible for coordinating response efforts and communications with the public.  The DMTF has 18 members from environmental agencies and organizations, public health officials and public safety officials.  The DMTF provides a comprehensive assessment of drought situations based on six drought indices (precipitation, stream flow, groundwater, lakes and impoundments, fire danger and evapotranspiration), establishes four index severity levels, forecasts of rain and temperature, and updates the DMP as needed.

MassDEP has significant responsibilities through its Water Management Act (“WMA”), Drinking Water, and Wetlands programs to oversee water supplies, allocations and resource protection.  MassDEP imposes water conservation measures and water use restrictions in withdrawal permits under the WMA.  Each permit holder must develop a water conservation program to comply with Water Conservation Standards, and a Water Loss Control Program.  In a declared water emergency, MassDEP may require a public water supplier to submit a plan with provisions for shutting off water, upgrades to WMA conservation measures, loss control plans, audits, system rehabilitation, building permit moratoria, and bans or restrictions on certain water uses (e.g., don’t water the ballfields).

The Massachusetts Water Works Association comments on the 2019 draft revisions to the DMP argue for local, systems-specific Water Resiliency or Drought Response Plans instead of mandates from the state DMP.  There is no one-size-fits-all Drought Plan.  Water suppliers assert that drought declarations must be based on scientific facts and not subjective judgment from non-water supply professionals.  Water suppliers want the DMP to encourage the development of new sources to provide redundancy opportunities and to increase the resiliency of the water supply systems.  The DMP should discuss the development of new or supplemental sources, rather than focus exclusively on conservation and restrictions.

The DMP is considered to be a living document to be updated and revised based on experiences.  The DMP is a critical component in tackling climate change impacts on water supplies: more extreme weather events from storms and droughts.